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A British hallmark is a legal mark that is punched or moulded into items manufactured using precious metals. The precious metal indicated will be a noble metal; either gold, silver, platinum or palladium. The marks identify the type and proportion of precious metal used in manufactured items, including jewellery, antique silver and objects.
All these noble metals are, in their pure form, soft and easily scratched. Manufacturers therefore mix, or alloy, them with other metals to improve their strength and resilience. Hallmarks give true and impartial proof of the composition and precious metal content of the item's metal. This enables a more precise valuation to be made.
Silver Hallmarks UK
The term 'hallmark' dates back to 1478. It may well represent one of the earliest forms of consumer protection. From this time, English silver was required to be at least 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals. A statute by King Edward I as far back as the 13th century, even speicfied that "It is ordained that no Goldsmith of England, nor none otherwhere within the King’s Dominions, shall from henceforth… work worse silver than money”.
With silver being used for circulating currency at the time, it was deemed that all silver items needed to be as good as the country's money. Termed 'Sterling Silver', items were legally required to be tested, and marked as such with a leopard head punch. The testing was done by ‘The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’. The Company met in Goldsmiths Hall, London, and this gave rise to the term 'Hallmark'.
Old silver hallmarks can be difficult to identify, as the stamps can become worn down over time. There was also a large number of different marks that could be found on old English jewellery. Fortunately these have been well-catalogued by collectors and dealers over the years.
As per the 1973 Hallmarking Act, all manufactured items over 1 gram in weight and containing precious metal must be hallmarked. The Act was amended in 1975 to include platinum, and further amended in 2009 to include palladium.
In the UK, the system of Hallmarking is regulated through assay offices in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. In past periods there were more assay offices in other parts of the UK. These offices sample and test the purity of precious metals’ alloys and licence manufacturers to hallmark their products.
What do markings on silver mean?
Today, the compulsory minimum hallmark requirement is to show the sponsor or maker mark, fineness, and assay office. The sponsor's mark is either the maker, the importer, or the seller.
Older English silver may have several different hallmarks however. The first fortunately remains largely the same today, and is quite easy to identify. This is the assay office, and generally the symbols are largely the same as today.
The fineness shows the precious metal content, expressed as parts per thousand. In the UK, the fineness of silver is shown contained in an oval shape. Other precious metals are indicated with differing shapes. Historical silver will use the tradition fineness symbol shown below; the lion 'passant'. Most silver items should show this symbol, and represents the Sterling silver standard.
Internationally, the fineness mark is shown as a number between a weighing scale. Historically, in the UK, there were traditional symbols that indicated the major grades of fineness.
The maker's mark was originally represented by various symbols, but the 15th century saw it changed to the initial's we know today. Different fonts and sizes were used to try and differentiate any repeated letters, but these can still be difficult to determine if taken on their own. As an addendum to the maker's mark, each individual worker could register their own personal hallmark, known as a "journeyman's mark". This was rare however, with few individual journeymen taking the time to register their own hallmark.
The last mark commonly found on English silver was the duty stamp. This took the form of the reigning monarch's portrait, and meant that any appropriate taxes on the metal had been paid.
Silver hallmark identification
The assay mark shows the UK assay office or an internationally recognised overseas office. Items from countries without a recognised assay offices should be assayed again in the UK.
Historically, hallmarks also denoted the year of assaying, place of manufacture, town mark or import marks, and other special occasion marks. Today these can be omitted.
The year of assaying is indicated by letters of the alphabet, though "i", "j" and "l" are omitted due to the risk of confusion.
Historically the letters used varied with the assay offices, but these were later standardised across the UK. Originally, the first hallmarks referred to the annual terms of masters and wardens in ‘The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’, and did not follow actual calendar years.
As mentioned above it can be difficult to identify silver hallmarks, but thanks to the internet the tools are readily available. Using the image at the top of the page as an example this is what we can work out:
- Maker's Mark: The letters "N.M" in a rectangle, refer to Nathaniel Mills.
- Standard: The traditional lion passant meaning it is 925, Sterling silver.
- Duty Stamp: A portrait of a young Queen Victoria.
- Date Letter: A "W" in an artistic font. This points to Birmingham between 1845 and 1846.
- Assay Office: The anchor stamp represents the Birmingham Assay Office.
So the example item was a Sterling silver item, made by Nathaniel Mills in the mid 1840s, and assayed in Birmingham.
Foreign gold hallmarks
In 1972, the UK became a signatory of the International Convention of Hallmarks. Signatories of the convention recognise each other's hallmarks. The Conference introduced the Common Control Mark (CCM).
For silver, the CCM symbol is the balance scales, with the fineness superimposed on an angular shape which outlines the scales. The fineness is shown as parts per thousand.
For gold the shape is two intersecting circles, for platinum the shape is a diamond, and for palladium a pentagon with a curved base.
Under a ruling by the European Court of Justice, the UK must recognise hallmarks of other European nations carrying three marks. These three are as mentioned previously: a sponsor mark, fineness mark and the assay office mark.
Does silver have to be stamped?
Precious metal coins do not require hallmarking. The government and mint issuing them guarantee their precious metal content. This makes it easy for bullion investors and numismatics, or coin collectors, to identify and assess the value of coins.
Precious metal bars are also exempt from hallmarking. This is because bars are defined as raw material, not manufactured items. As such, bars are usually pure precious metal. Instead of hallmarking, refiners will generally stamp or mark bars with their weight, purity and their own refinery name.
Bullion silver provides a safe-haven investment that can diversify a portfolio, and physical bullion is free from counterparty risk. Hallmarks are of little significance to silver investment buyers who generally choose bars or coins.
BullionByPost provide an easy way for investors to sell silver coins, bars and scrap. We offer competitive margins based on the market price. We will only buy hallmarked scrap silver or object of vertu.
Silver plate hallmarks
There is no recognised system for the marking silver plate or electroplated silver items. Both are, though, commonly marked with EPNS - ElectroPlated Nickel Silver, and EPBM - ElectroPlated Britannia Metal. Any punches in silver plate or electroplated silver are strictly speaking simply marks and not hallmarks. Any hallmarked silver plate or electroplated items represent deliberate attempts to mislead consumers.